by Ben Diamond
“Vegas and Crook are a sleazy dream-team and brilliantly cast as the soft-core spud men… After several pints and a curry it could be the lads’ film of the year.”
-Mark Adams, The Sunday Mirror, 22nd February 2004
“Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival”
-Extract from Mark Adams’s Twitter bio
Where were you when you first watched Sex Lives of the Potato Men?
(Subtext: I am ashamed that the review of this film exists alongside my review of Son of Saul).
You can’t spend your life watching great films.
Sometimes you have to ground yourself. Remind yourself why it is that great films are great. Because it’s all relative, isn’t it? If you went to see something as good as Barton Fink every week at North Finchley Vue then the spectacle would fail to astound after a while.
And so it was that I found myself in a living room in Sunderland watching Sex Lives of the Potato Men.
I remember seeing posters for this on buses when it came out. I remember seeing Mackenzie Crook up on that poster, and the Office connection made me want to see it. But unfortunately I was 13 years old for most of 2004. Now I’m a big boy – 25 years old – so I allowed myself the indulgence of checking out a film that was notoriously bad. There was a special aura of badness surrounding this film, folkloric tales of a 0% rating on RottenTomatoes, outrage at the million pounds of public funds from the UK Film Council used to make this film.
I didn’t find it to be as nasty and misogynistic as some critics made out. I didn’t even find it so terrible, so awful, such a heinous crime of cinematic attrition. I even laughed a few times. Yes, it’s abysmal. But so is loads of stuff. It held my attention more than recent Oscar-winner Spotlight, which tried to occupy the centre ground between thriller and procedural and ended up being neither, essentially a montage of interviews with victims of abuse masquerading as a testament to the selfless heroics of investigative journalism. The Wire Season 5 it weren’t.
Four thoughts on Sex Lives of the Potato Men, or as it was called in France, La Vie de l’Homme de Pomme de Terre.
- Sometimes it’s easier to write about a bad film than a good film.
- Someone had to write this film. It came out of someone’s head. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the psychotherapy sessions this bloke has been to. And if he hasn’t, he really needs a few sessions. Someone had to think of the idea that a man used to spread strawberry jam on his other half’s pudenda before he performed cunnilingus. Someone then had to think of the idea that he missed the taste of such an experience so much that he had to start eating strawberry jam and fish-paste sandwiches to replicate the taste. It’s like Proust’s madeleines but with a subtle hint of fanny juice. Either the man who wrote this is a genius or needs to be in Broadmoor. Some of the conversations in this film are so dead-end and nonsensical that they almost (almost) come full-circle and turn into a brilliant Kafka-esque satire on the banalities of modern discourse, each conversation simply a compendium of phatic utterances.
- In a way, this feels like a precursor to the era of Inbetweeners-style humour. Crucially, Vegas and Crook are total losers and their sex lives are shit, so they are playing underdogs. But the tone of the film is so off, so wrong, that the fine-tuned charm of the Inbetweeners is instead bludgeoned to death. Maybe Sex Lives of the Potato Men had to be slain on the altar of comedy for better things to come after it.
- Some scenes, concepts, dialogue in the film are genuinely disturbing. And this irritates me. Because I’ve watched Rome, Open City. I’ve seen Fitzcarraldo. I recently sat through the entirety of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma. I’ve watched the greats, kids. And I can barely remember anything from any of them. And I can remember loads from Sex Lives of the Potato Men. In excruciating detail. Like the scene pictured at the top of this article, where one character opens a door at an orgy and, in a break from the reality of the rest of the film, strolls through a neon-lit avenue of obscenities – ‘piss flaps’, ‘beef curtains’, even – and we’re talking the height of eroticism here – ‘fingering’. Fingering. The holy grail. And my point here is that these neon signs are now forever burned into my mind’s eye. This film, in its shittiness, has made more of an impression on me than most of the greats. And that has disturbing implications for art. Great art and bad art. And how the void left by bad art is the thing that is left when the good art that you actually had to think about evaporates from your short term memory. And if bad art leaves the strongest impression, then ad execs know, by extension, that if they throw enough shit at you, literally and metaphorically, at least some of it will stick.